The team who surprised the prognosticators the most in the American League Central in 2015 was the Minnesota Twins. The young upstarts were picked by many to bring up the rear in the division, but after jumping out of the gates to a 30-19 mark and a narrow half-game lead over the Royals and hovering around 10 games over .500 until the All-Star Break, they fell back to the pack and ultimately finished a less surprising 83-79. That mark was still good for second in the division, thanks to Cleveland and Detroit both severely failing to reach expectations, but it was nowhere near the division-winning Royals who finished with a 12-game cushion when the dust settled on the season.
The perception of the Twins as having a successful campaign was largely colored by their quick start, but their record settled in around where their true-talent level was thought to be. That thinking was further supported by their Pythagorean W-L, which pegged them for an 81-81 record, and their 3rd Order Winning Percentage, which saw them as a 73-89 team.
As a team in the midst of their own resurgence thanks to the talent reaching the majors from a highly touted farm system, that perception of true talent from last year doesn't necessarily carry over into what can be expected of the Twins and their youth movement.
With the caveat that projections for a team with so many young players are EXTREMELY volatile, let us take a quick look at what might be expected of the 2016 Twins. It should be noted that ZiPS does not attempt to account for expected playing time, so in some instances players at a position are getting significantly more playing time than would actually be available. The WAR in these projections is simply intended to give you an idea as to what their performance might look like in 2016.
All projections courtesy of Fangraphs
Clearly these two figure to split the lion's share of the playing time at catcher. With little in the way of high quality catchers in the upper levels of the farm, any other players getting reps behind the plate would likely be in the general vicinity of replacement level. ZiPS projects the two as having more combined PAs than they are likely to split (749) while Steamer has the pair accumulating just 550.
Murphy comes to Minnesota as the return from the Yankees for Aaron Hicks, who had just established himself as a major-leaguer after two seasons of underwhelming results when given the chance to prove himself. Whether the deal ends up working or not for the Twins is yet to be determined, but Murphy's comrade in catcher's gear is coming off a -0.1 fWAR campaign and turned 32 in the offseason. At the very least, Murphy could be an upgrade over their previous in-house options at catcher. With fewer than 300 career plate appearances in the bigs, Murphy falls into the volatile projection bin.
Just as in 2015, Joe Mauer figures to get the bulk of the playing time at first, assuming his health. Health may not be the safest of assumptions in his case, but at this point, he is who he is - a highly paid homegrown disappointment who catches tons of flak for agreeing to terms on a contract that ownership offered him. It may not be fair, but such is life as the face of a franchise still coming out of a rebuild.
Vargas, who may also figure into the mix at designated hitter, is an enigma. He has gotten roughly one-third of a season's worth of playing time at the major-league level in each of the past two seasons. One of those mini-seasons saw him post a 114 wRC+ in an encouraging jump from AA to the MLB. The other saw him implode to the tune of a 70 wRC+. As an all-bat, full-time DH type at 25 years old, Vargas won't play if he doesn't hit.
Neither projection system bothers figuring playing time for any other second baseman on the team, as any reps Dozier doesn't take will surely be scooped up by one of the guys in the mix at short. Coming into his age-29 season, Dozier has played the bulk of the last three seasons and has been worth 2.5, 4.7, and 3.4 fWAR in those seasons. If one enjoyed betting on such things, Dozier would be a solid bet to outperform his projection at least by a bit.
Regarding these projections, three of the four (read: not Jorge Polanco, who will likely get more consistent playing time in the minors) figure to play heavily in the rotation at short, though which of the three ends up earning that time is unknown. Smart money is on the one who ended up starting down the stretch for the 2015 Twins, Escobar, but Santana was a 3.3 fWAR player in 2014 in just 101 games (thanks largely to an unsustainable .405 BABIP, but still). Just as in many of the Twins' positional projections, the range of outcomes for largely unproven players capable - both historically and potentially - is a wide one.
Just as with Dozier, both systems project just Plouffe to play considerable time at the position and presumably any of the time he doesn't get at the hot corner gets gobbled up by one of the guys in the mix at short, likely Eduardo Nunez. Plouffe is coming of a pair of solid seasons worth 3.6 and 2.5 fWAR, so it isn't hard to envision a bit more output than either of the projections have him figured for in 2016, especially since having been allowed to settle in at third, becoming an above-average defender for the past two seasons.
The ZiPS projections figure much more playing time from this quartet than is available to them, so that should be taken into consideration when looking at their projected values.
Rosario is coming off a 122-game, 2.3 fWAR campaign, giving the Twins positive value both offensively and defensively. Both projection systems are strangely down on his defense despite what he did on the field last year and scouting reports labeling him a plus defender. His power spiked last year in his age-23 season. No development is without its bumps in the road, but once again this looks like a position from which the Twins could see more value than the median projections have allotted for them. His walk-rate was a paltry 3.2% in the bigs last year, but he did show more patience in the minors, so some growth in the patience department could happen.
Coming off an encouraging 2014, Arcia floundered last year, cratering his trade value and pushing the door wide open for Rosario. Arcia is not a player without promise, but to say something was amiss last year would be an understatement, as evidenced by his 79 wRC+ in 79 AAA games last season. Arcia is also out of options, so he's got a better shot at staying on the ML-roster all season than others on the fringe.
The bulk of the value and production in left is likely to come from these players, and once again the lack of precision in projections of players - particularly players with so little in the way of stats accrued at the ML-level - leaves a lot of room for variance in on-the-field results from what the projection systems predict as the most likely outcome.
Possibly more than any other player listed on an already volatile team, the range of outcomes for what Buxton could do is vast. Having been widely regarded as one of the game's top few prospects for what seems like eons, Buxton's 2015 was derailed by injury before he could pass the rookie minimums. When he was healthy and getting playing time in the majors, he didn't exactly look great. Still, when the player thought of as the game's best young talent breaks into the bigs for good, the impact is often pretty impressive.
Put simply, Buxton could blow away the WAR projections.
German-born Kepler is the only player not listed elsewhere. Barring injury, none of these guys are actually likely to get much playing time in right, which will get addressed in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.
The Twins appear intent upon playing Sano in right. With his history at third base, it's possible that the Twins could ship off Plouffe and move Sano back there, but as the roster is currently constructed, Sano is their presumptive starting right fielder. How that plays out defensively is anyone's guess.
What no one is wondering about is Sano's prodigious power. After missing all of 2014 with Tommy John surgery, Sano clubbed 33 dongs in 146 games split between AA and the majors. He struck out A LOT (35.5% of the time), but he balanced that with a 15.5% walk rate. As a 22-year-old getting his first taste of big league pitching, Sano posted the 14th-best ISO (.262) of any batter with at least 300 PA. So despite the fact that his defense in right is an unknown, the former big time prospect could really do some damage this year.
While on the subject of unknowns, the other key contributor for the Twins this year listed at designated hitter is Korean slugger Byung-ho Park. Just like Sano, Park possesses mammoth power. In the KBO the past two years, he hung dong a combined 105 times in 268 games while manning first base. Between Park and Sano, it isn't hard to imagine the Twins getting 60+ homers from the two players listed in this section. Having played first in South Korea, he could also end up playing there in the event of a Joe Mauer injury.
Vargas getting any playing time here or anywhere else is likely contingent upon injuries to other players, and his lack of positional flexibility explains why he was optioned to AAA last week.
Guys like Trevor May and Alex Meyer could factor into the equation as starters, but they'll be accounted for in the relief section. Jose Berrios was recently re-assigned to minor-league camp, but there's little reason to think he'll be there long. Berrios improved upon a solid 2014 by shoving at AA and then AAA, posting his best K/BB in an extended stint at a level in the stop at AAA. Representing yet another high-ceiling prospect for whom projections lack stability, Berrios may well be the third best pitcher the Twins will have this year despite starting the year in the minors for purposes mostly related to the gaming of service time to increase club control by a year.
As for the rest of the rotation, Santana and Hughes are known quantities. If Hughes performs at 2014 levels, he could be a nightmare for opponents, as the defense behind him is no longer one that can kindly be called poor across the board. Having put up two straight 2.3+ fWAR seasons, Gibson seems to have settled in as a solid #3 starter, though it's possible that the organization's pitch-to-contact philosophy is limiting Gibson's potential.
Duffey was a bit of a revelation in limited time last season, but he didn't exactly have the prospect status heading into his debut to support the contention that those results were representative of his true-talent level. Duffey's struggles in Spring Training may end up punching his ticket for the minors to start the year, but if Milone and Nolasco struggle, Duffey could find himself back in the mix even if he's shipped to Rochester to start the year.
Molitor and the Twins could see others make contributions out of the pen, but aside from 2014 second-round pick Nick Burdi and maybe LOOGY candidate Taylor Rogers, it's hard to see any of the relievers not listed making much of an impact. Burdi has yet to pitch a regular season game above the AA level, but the Twins don't generally concern themselves with making sure their prospects play a bunch in the high minors before promoting them to the 25-man roster, so Burdi could find himself pitching in high-leverage situations part way through the season.
Other than Perkins closing being set in stone until its not, it looks like Kevin Jepsen, Casey Fien, and maybe Trevor May will be factors in set-up roles.
Like Arcia, Tonkin is out of options, which could force the Twins to carry him on the 25-man roster as they head north from Florida.
Summing it up
So much of where the Twins will end up at the end of 2016 is dependent upon the fruits that their youth movement yields. Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano could break out and become stars. Byung-ho Park is a pretty big question mark, but judging by the success of Jung Ho Kang last year, the Twins could be getting quite the boon for the money spent. With other former and current top 100 prospects like Eddie Rosario, Jose Berrios, Max Kepler, Nick Burdi, Jorge Polanco, Oswaldo Arcia, Alex Meyer, and Trevor May all likely to contribute to the major-league roster, there is a lot of potential on the roster to exceed more reasonable expectations.
Each year young teams with tantalizing talent surprises the baseball world and grows by leaps and bounds. Last year both the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros rode to the postseason on the backs of hot young studs. It is entirely possible that this years Astros will be the Twins. The pitching staff may not be spectacular, but the offense could coalesce quickly. That could get scary quickly for the Royals and the rest of the Central, and a second-place (or better) finish in the division wouldn't be much of a surprise from the Twins in 2016.